Americans have a big election coming up in a few weeks, with early voting and voting by mail happening right now, and 2020 marks the centennial of national women’s suffrage in the United States. But many of us aren’t aware of just how rocky and uneven the road to universal suffrage has been—full of switchbacks, detours, closed roads, and obstacles—or how precarious those rights continue to be.
The right of citizens to participate in their own government is the hallmark of democracy. But throughout history, exactly which cititzens are good enough to vote has been hotly debated—and all too often frightfully limited. Even after people have secured their right to vote, efforts to restrict voting rights have continued to suppress access to this most fundamental democratic process.
In the 19th century, it became more and more common in England and the US for people to protest the lack of voting rights. In the 1830s, less than 1% of the male population of Britain (and 0% of the females) could vote in parliamentary elections. The vote was restricted to wealthy property owners, and many British subjects were not represented in Parliament (this had been one of the primary grievances of the American colonists that sparked the Revolutionary War fifty years earlier). Efforts to expand suffrage continued throughout the century, with reforms coming piecemeal. Not until 1918—with the passage of the Representation of the People Act (which extended voting rights to some women for the first time)—would Englishmen enjoy universal male suffrage.
The United States’s record isn’t all that much better. Property requirements were gradually eliminated, state by state, through the 1820s, granting the right to vote to most white men. And while Black men were technically enfranchised with the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, in actual practice, many states instituted new discriminatory laws that made access to the polls all but impossible for African Americans and poor whites, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures.
Women’s suffrage demonstrations in the US and Britain have become notorious for the lengths officials went to suppress their protests. In America, many individual states had granted women the right to vote, beginning with Wyoming in 1890, but the 19th Amendment extended the franchise nationwide. Again, this effectively applied mostly to white women, as laws throughout the country still restricted voting based on race. In addition to the discriminatory laws targeting Blacks that most of us are aware of, the vote was also withheld from many Native Americans (as late as 1948) and Asian Americans (1943) until well into the 20th century.
Near-universal suffrage in the United States was not guaranteed until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured fair access to the polls regardless of race. A Supreme Court decision followed in 1966, finally abolishing wealth and tax requirements.
The Voting Rights Act has been expanded and reinforced several times since its passage—but it has also faced challenges. In 2013 some of its provisions were struck down by the Supreme Court. The new ruling removed a requirement that states—especially those with a history of discriminatory voting practices—appeal to the federal government to change their voting laws, weakening national voting protections. (And, in fact, some states immediately moved to change their own laws.)
Our right to vote might seem secure, but even today efforts to make it harder for Americans to vote are in full swing. The state of Kansas, where I live, recently attempted to require proof of US citizenship to vote, which was rejected and declared unconstitutional in April, 2020. Such measures are often couched as necessary efforts to safeguard the security and authenticity of the voting process, but their application unfairly affects minorities, immigrants, and the poor.
The best way to protect our hard-won right to vote is to exercise it. Learn more about voter registration in your state here. In most states, there’s still time to register and request a mail-in ballot.